Charting the giants

June 03, 2004

Clusters of galaxies

Clusters of galaxies are very large building blocks of the Universe. These gigantic structures contain hundreds to thousands of galaxies and, less visible but equally interesting, an additional amount of "dark matter" whose origin still defies the astronomers, with a total mass of thousands of millions of millions times the mass of our Sun. The comparatively nearby Coma cluster, for example, contains thousands of galaxies and measures more than 20 million light-years across. Another well-known example is the Virgo cluster at a distance of about 50 million light-years, and still stretching over an angle of more than 10 degrees in the sky!

Clusters of galaxies form in the densest regions of the Universe. As such, they perfectly trace the backbone of the large-scale structures in the Universe, in the same way that lighthouses trace a coastline. Studies of clusters of galaxies therefore tell us about the structure of the enormous space in which we live.

The REFLEX survey

Following this idea, a European team of astronomers [2], under the leadership of Hans Boehringer (MPE, Garching, Germany), Luigi Guzzo (INAF, Milano, Italy), Chris A. Collins (JMU, Liverpool), and Peter Schuecker (MPE, Garching) has embarked on a decade-long study of these gargantuan structures, trying to locate the most massive of clusters of galaxies.

Since about one-fifth of the optically invisible mass of a cluster is in the form of a diffuse very hot gas with a temperature of the order of several tens of millions of degrees, clusters of galaxies produce powerful X-ray emission. They are therefore best discovered by means of X-ray satellites.

For this fundamental study, the astronomers thus started by selecting candidate objects using data from the X-ray Sky Atlas compiled by the German ROSAT satellite survey mission. This was the beginning only - then followed a lot of tedious work: making the final identification of these objects in visible light and measuring the distance (i.e., redshift [3]) of the cluster candidates.

The determination of the redshift was done by means of observations with several telescopes at the ESO La Silla Observatory in Chile, from 1992 to 1999. The brighter objects were observed with the ESO 1.5-m and the ESO/MPG 2.2-m telescopes, while for the more distant and fainter objects, the ESO 3.6-m telescope was used.

Carried out at these telescopes, the 12 year-long programme is known to astronomers as the REFLEX (ROSAT-ESO Flux Limited X-ray) Cluster Survey. It has now been concluded with the publication of a unique catalogue with the characteristics of the 447 brightest X-ray clusters of galaxies in the southern sky. Among these, more than half the clusters were discovered during this survey.

Constraining the dark matter content

Galaxy clusters are far from being evenly distributed in the Universe. Instead, they tend to conglomerate into even larger structures, "super-clusters". Thus, from stars which gather in galaxies, galaxies which congregate in clusters and clusters tying together in super-clusters, the Universe shows structuring on all scales, from the smallest to the largest ones. This is a relict of the very early (formation) epoch of the Universe, the so-called "inflationary" period. At that time, only a minuscule fraction of one second after the Big Bang, the tiny density fluctuations were amplified and over the eons, they gave birth to the much larger structures.

Because of the link between the first fluctuations and the giant structures now observed, the unique REFLEX catalogue - the largest of its kind - allows astronomers to put considerable constraints on the content of the Universe, and in particular on the amount of dark matter that is believed to pervade it. Rather interestingly, these constraints are totally independent from all other methods so far used to assert the existence of dark matter, such as the study of very distant supernovae (see e.g. ESO PR 21/98) or the analysis of the Cosmic Microwave background (e.g. the WMAP satellite). In fact, the new REFLEX study is very complementary to the above-mentioned methods.

The REFLEX team concludes that the mean density of the Universe is in the range 0.27 to 0.43 times the "critical density", providing the strongest constraint on this value up to now. When combined with the latest supernovae study, the REFLEX result implies that, whatever the nature of the dark energy is, it closely mimics a Universe with Einstein's cosmological constant.

A giant puzzle

The REFLEX catalogue will also serve many other useful purposes. With it, astronomers will be able to better understand the detailed processes that contribute to the heating of the gas in these clusters. It will also be possible to study the effect of the environment of the cluster on each individual galaxy. Moreover, the catalogue is a good starting point to look for giant gravitational lenses, in which a cluster acts as a giant magnifying lens, effectively allowing observations of the faintest and remotest objects that would otherwise escape detection with present-day telescopes.

But, as Hans Boehringer says: "Perhaps the most important advantage of this catalogue is that the properties of each single cluster can be compared to the entire sample. This is the main goal of surveys: assembling the pieces of a gigantic puzzle to build the grander view, where every single piece then gains a new, more comprehensive meaning."
-end-
More information

The results presented in this Press Release will appear in the research journal Astronomy and Astrophysics ("The ROSAT-ESO Flux Limited X-ray (REFLEX) Galaxy Cluster Survey. V. The cluster catalogue" by H. Boehringer et al.; astro-ph/0405546). See also the REFLEX website http://www.xray.mpe.mpg.de/theorie/REFLEX/.

Notes

[1]: This is a coordinated press release with the Max-Planck-Society (Germany; German-language press release) and INAF (Italy; Italian-language press release).

[2]: The team is composed of Hans Boehringer, Peter Schuecker, and Wolfgang Voges (Max-Planck Institut fuer extraterrestrische Physik, Garching, Germany), Luigi Guzzo and Sabrina De Grandi (Osservatorio Astronomico di Brera, Italy), Chris A. Collins (John Moores University, Liverpool, UK), Ray G. Cruddace (Naval Research Laboratory, USA), Amelia Oriz-Gil (Universidad de Valencia, Spain), Guido Chincarini (Osservatorio Astronomico di Brera and Universita di Milano, Italy), Alastair C. Edge (University of Durham, UK), Harvey T. MacGillivray (University of Edinburgh, UK), Doris M. Neumann (CEA Saclay, France), Sabine Schindler (University of Innsbruck, Austria), and Peter Shaver (ESO).

[3]: In astronomy, the "redshift" denotes the fraction by which the lines in the spectrum of an object are shifted towards longer wavelengths. Since the redshift of a cosmological object increases with distance, the observed redshift of a remote galaxy also provides an estimate of its distance.

The full text of this Press Release, with four photos, one video clip and all related links, is available at:

http://www.eso.org/outreach/press-rel/pr-2004/pr-15-04.html

ESO

Related Dark Matter Articles from Brightsurf:

Dark matter from the depths of the universe
Cataclysmic astrophysical events such as black hole mergers could release energy in unexpected forms.

Seeing dark matter in a new light
A small team of astronomers have found a new way to 'see' the elusive dark matter haloes that surround galaxies, with a new technique 10 times more precise than the previous-best method.

Holding up a mirror to a dark matter discrepancy
The universe's funhouse mirrors are revealing a difference between how dark matter behaves in theory and how it appears to act in reality.

Zooming in on dark matter
Cosmologists have zoomed in on the smallest clumps of dark matter in a virtual universe - which could help us to find the real thing in space.

Looking for dark matter with the universe's coldest material
A study in PRL reports on how researchers at ICFO have built a spinor BEC comagnetometer, an instrument for studying the axion, a hypothetical particle that may explain the mystery of dark matter.

Looking for dark matter
Dark matter is thought to exist as 'clumps' of tiny particles that pass through the earth, temporarily perturbing some fundamental constants.

New technique looks for dark matter traces in dark places
A new study by scientists at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, UC Berkeley, and the University of Michigan -- published today in the journal Science - concludes that a possible dark matter-related explanation for a mysterious light signature in space is largely ruled out.

Researchers look for dark matter close to home
Eighty-five percent of the universe is composed of dark matter, but we don't know what, exactly, it is.

Galaxy formation simulated without dark matter
For the first time, researchers from the universities of Bonn and Strasbourg have simulated the formation of galaxies in a universe without dark matter.

Taking the temperature of dark matter
Warm, cold, just right? Physicists at UC Davis are using gravitational lensing to take the temperature of dark matter, the mysterious substance that makes up about a quarter of our universe.

Read More: Dark Matter News and Dark Matter Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.